How Sustainable Is 3D Printing?August 23, 2019
In 1996, the Smithsonian Institution initiated The Millennium Project, a worldwide assemblage of futurists, scholars, business planners and policy makers, to mark the dawn of the 21st century. The group developed a list of global challenges, and provides annual reports on the topic. Looking at the list, it is interesting to find that additive manufacturing (AM) has a role to play in meeting a number of the challenges. Let’s look at just one, sustainability, and see where AM helps.
Two facts immediately come to mind: AM reduces material waste as compared to traditional manufacturing processes, and print on demand reduces the need for transportation and related infrastructure.
Consider jet engines as an example. Many of us are familiar with GE’s LEAP engine and the development of the engine’s fuel nozzles. Nozzle complexity necessitated 3D printing as the manufacturing method, and creation of this nozzle is considered a seminal event in the abbreviated history of metal AM. Innovations such as the nozzle design and its build method yielded a single part whereas without AM, 18 separate parts, along with the energy and material needed to traditionally manufacture and assemble, would be needed. Other nozzle stats: 25 percent lighter and much more durable than previous nozzles; and 19 nozzles on a single LEAP engine help reduce fuel consumption and CO2 emissions by 15 percent. The LEAP engine now flies or is set to fly on thousands of aircraft.
Following that success, GE Aviation and its partners turned to turboprops, developing an advanced engine that reduced 855 parts to only 12, with about 35 percent of the new engine produced via 3D printing. The new design cut engine weight by 5 percent and fuel consumption by 20 percent, all while providing 10 percent more power than other engines in its class.